Monthly Archives: July 2012

Review: Minnesota Orchestra and Erin Keefe in Beethoven, July 2012

I went to see the Minnesota Orchestra in Winona, Minnesota, yesterday. Things have changed since I saw them there last, in the summer of 2010. To put it bluntly, the musicians’ contracts expire in September, and from the outside, things are looking unnervingly unsettled. The musicians have written a few carefully vague blog entries that include such sentences as “management’s current proposals would seriously diminish the artistic quality of the orchestra in its ability to retain and attract the best musicians possible and, thus, jeopardize its current top-tier status.” The orchestra’s CEO has sent a couple of odd emails to patrons discussing some of the fundraising triumphs of the past season, with a mention at the end that oh, yeah, by the way: “We continue in contract talks with our musicians, hopeful that we will be able to find common ground to resolve our significant financial challenges.” It is tempting, if ultimately futile, to read between those lines. Staff members have been fired; the upcoming season is short and unabashedly unadventurous; Orchestra Hall is in the middle of a major renovation, and everyone is working in temporary spaces. Maybe I’m paranoid, but this feels awfully like the uneasy calm before a storm.

Some people have seized upon the conflict with a kind of ghoulish delight, braying opinions with all the class, subtlety, and intellectual prowess of CNN covering the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act. I understand why: it’s a chance for everyone, no matter how ill-informed (and at this point, just about everyone is ill-informed) to advance their pet theories about why orchestras are doomed. And oh, how people in the classical music biz love debating why orchestras are doomed! Add in a juicy topical debate about the role of unions and the ultra-wealthy in a community’s artistic life, and the topic becomes irresistible. Mix, bake, set out to cool. Serves a savory meal for hundreds of cultural critics – professional, amateur, and those in the gray netherworld in between.

In short, this may become a big story. There is, potentially, a lot at stake.

Only none of us on the outside knows exactly what.

Yet.

So, we wait.

Anyway, those were some of the uplifting thoughts cycling through my head yesterday. I’ve been looking forward to this show since it was announced (especially since the program included the concerto debut of the Orchestra’s new concertmaster Erin Keefe), but there was a part of me that was weirdly hesitant to go. I’m only too aware that, thanks to the abridged season, I’m more than likely not going to see the Orchestra until 2013. (Rather unbelievably, there are only four daytime classical concerts left in 2012, and two of those are holiday performances of Brandenburg concertos and The Messiah…) There’s so much uncertainty in my life right now – personally as well as musically – that at this point, 2013 seems like a distant mirage that might never actually get here. What will transpire in the next six months? As I drove the two hours to Winona, I tried my best to shake the feeling I might be saying a kind of good-bye.

The opening was the Coriolan Overture: dramatic, defiant, burning with a raw, almost sinister power. The sound was savage, striking again and again with brute staccato force. Quiet dolce passages offered no relief from the tension; they only tightened the screws, making the next terrifying forte blast all the more devastating. By the time the quiet, albeit emphatic, pizzes brought the piece to an end, it was clear the artistic gauntlet had been thrown. Top that, was the unspoken insinuation. Clearly, despite (because of?) what’s going on behind closed doors, this is an orchestra that knows exactly what to say and exactly how to say it…maybe now more than ever.

After the fierce overture, Erin Keefe strode onstage looking like a veritable goddess in a violet gown, long pleated skirt pooling at her feet. Not only was this her first time soloing with the Orchestra, it was her first time playing the Beethoven concerto; she learned it specifically for this set of concerts. Although she didn’t look it, I had to wonder if she was, at least on a certain level, terrified. What violinist wouldn’t be? But from the moment those opening octaves pierced the air, it was clear she – and we! – had absolutely nothing to fear.

I’ve never heard the first movement of the Beethoven concerto played with such a striking narrative arc. So often so many passages can feel superfluous, leading to the old “it’s nothing but scales!” complaint – but here every note, every phrase, felt indispensable. Her sound was silvery, her dynamics breathtaking, her Kreisler cadenzas shudderingly bold and fearless. Maybe there was a little fatigue in the second half – or certain places where the sound felt a tad scrunched – or a few barely out of tune notes here and there – but these teensy tiny things were more reassurances of her humanity than actual flaws. Tears ran down my face…tears of joy, sadness, satisfaction, yearning, triumph, defeat, and every irreconcilable emotion in between. When played well, the Beethoven concerto has the power to say everything. And thanks to Erin Keefe and her colleagues in the Orchestra, yesterday, it said everything.

After intermission came the Eroica. This is one of those Beethoven pieces that I like and respect and admire but don’t wholeheartedly love…I’m more of a seventh symphony girl, I guess. But nonetheless, what a transporting joy it was to hear live: the orchestra played with all the tightness, conviction, and fire they’d displayed in the Coriolan. Precision – purpose – boundless, limitless, endless energy - all underlain with a restless, arresting passion that – at least in my listening experience – has never been so potent.

For whatever reason (probably in light of…recent events), throughout the afternoon I was struck by the humanity of the people onstage, and by the individuality of each player. Principal cellist Tony Ross warmed up with the devastating opening of the Elgar concerto. A violinist played through a portion of Dvořák New World over and over (they’re performing it in Minneapolis on Friday). Concertmaster Stephanie Arado mouthed some words to a cellist; he nodded. The air conditioning made a racket in the first half of the program, so it was turned off for the second, resulting in the word going round of “lose the jackets and ties!” Men came back out sporting exposed suspenders and rolled-up cuffs; women took off their white sweaters to reveal short-sleeved shirts and bare arms. Sweaty faces glimmered determined in the lights. In between movements of the Eroica, a violinist’s shoulder rest fell off (I sympathized; it looked like the same model as mine, and golly that thing has a tendency to fall off during the most inconvenient times). Everyone watched the reattachment except for Maestro Vänskä, who stood by impassively, pretending to be lost in abstract contemplation of the music before him, only raising his hands again once the rest was re-secured. At the very end of the show, when Vänskä gave each section the opportunity to stand and receive plaudits from the audience, the musicians gave a resounding congratulatory whoop to the ever under-appreciated violas, in one of the group’s many awesomely orch-dorky traditions.

In short, I remembered how the Minnesota Orchestra is not a monolith, not a hive of mindless worker bees, not a colony of bow-tied ants, no matter how often it can look like it, what with the single-minded discipline and bows moving in breathtaking unison and all. It’s made up of a diverse collection of passionate, obscenely talented, well-rounded individuals. For most of them, merely playing an instrument at the very highest level was not enough. So they also became conductors and writers and competitors and composers and historians and educators and artistic directors…among other things. They are the best of the best the musical world has to offer, and their love of their art serves as an example to the rest of us. May we listeners never take them – or musicians like them – for granted.

The Minnesota Orchestra is clearly in flux. They have a new concertmaster who over the course of the last year has proven herself to be an orchestral musician, chamber player, and soloist of the very first rank. A number of important names from the orchestra roster will not be returning in 2012-13 season. Next year a renovated Orchestra Hall will be opened, and if the renderings are any indication, it will be stunning. There are indications that programming in the future will be…um, different. Eventually, a new contract will be signed. Those five changes are likely just the tip of the iceberg. I have my fingers crossed that throughout all the changes, the glory of the core product remains unaffected. My hoping won’t actually do any good, but whatever. It makes me feel better.

I’m not delusional enough to think that anyone with any power from either “side” in Minneapolis is actually reading the bloggy ramblings of a 23-year-old amateur string-player from Wisconsin, nor am I delusional enough to think that they should. But I do hope that as they make the difficult decisions that lie ahead, they never stop remembering the passion of the people onstage, not even for a moment. If the organization’s plans to “Build for the Future” neglect to harness the musicians’ passion, then those plans aren’t worth making. Simple as that. Passion is an asset no budget can buy, and yesterday afternoon, I realized that we underestimate the power of that passion at our peril.

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Emily Visits Violaland, Part 5/?

I published this on violinist.com a while ago but forgot to put it here. Whoops!

***

After I made the decision to delve deeper into the viola, I scheduled a second lesson with my Professional Violist Friend. (Some of you may remember PVF from his appearance in Part 2 of Emily Visits Violaland.)

We talk a lot on this board about good teachers, without often defining what a “good teacher” is. Whatever a “good teacher” is, I have one in PVF. It’s always a little disorienting when you befriend someone, and you think you’re getting a handle on who they are, and then suddenly they surprise you with a random blinding talent. PVF’s teaching ability has been one such pleasant shock.

I didn’t have a phone or a watch on me, so I’m not positive how long we spent working, but it was over an hour. PVF made good use of the time, chatting, demonstrating, exaggerating, tweaking, thinking, notating, singing, dancing, and even sharing some inconsequential viola-y gossip in between the brain-twisting. That night I wrote a list of the things we discussed, and I came up with around forty. Talk about intense.

The issues we discussed fell under a few main headers:

Tension!

I went into the lesson stoked to show off my new relaxed bow arm. That had been the main focus of my last lesson with PVF in January. I’d really taken his suggestions to heart, and I’d spent a lot of time in front of the mirror, and I was finally feeling confident I was playing (drumroll, please) Tension Free! As soon as I finished the Prelude from the first Bach suite, PVF gently pointed out that the tension brought out by the difficulties of the string-changes had not actually disappeared; instead, it had just…moved to my left hand.

%$*#!

And so the endless game of Tension Whack A Mole continues!

I was instructed to play the notes above the fingerboard without touching the string, and then to stop them as lightly as possible. Think of the third and fourth fingers as the base for contact instead of the first finger. Let the elbow be flexible and move around to support them. My fourth finger wasn’t coming down smoothly; it was either in an up position or a down position, and when it did come down, it whacked the string with unnecessary force. To help, PVF prescribed a nerdy tabletop finger exercise that will cause people to look at me strangely in public.

Within a few minutes, everything began feeling much more relaxed. It felt easy and effortless and exhilarating. It really is surprising how little weight is needed to stop strings, even on a viola.

Bowing Difficulties!

One passage (measure 19 of the Bach G-major prelude if you’re following along at home) was coming out consistently problematic. It was a descending line of sixteenth notes with a simple down-up-down-up bowing pattern. But I was pulling on the downs so much that it was all very choppy. PVF instructed to accentuate the up-bows. I tried that. Then he told me to accentuate even more. And even more. I finally ended up feeling like I was making all the downs staccato and all of the ups a sweeping legato. “That,” he said, “was the smoothest you’ve played it yet.” Well, okay, then. Once again, a reminder that what we feel under our fingers is not always what the audience hears.

I was so busy with the notes themselves that I wasn’t paying much attention to the dynamics. “Exaggerate those,” PVF encouraged. “Play completely tastelessly.” I tried. “No, not tasteless enough.” I tried again. “Nope, still way too tasteful. Break up the bows, do something. Make it just totally over the top. Feel what that feels like, and then apply that feeling to the correct bowing.” Alas, I never did lose all my taste entirely, but I’ll work on it. This was rather a liberating idea. I’m going to have to apply it to other instances when I’m being too straight-laced. Sometimes we need to allow ourselves to go wild…if only for an experiment to see how far we can push our intensity of expression.

Structure of the Prelude!

PVF suggested that it might be interesting to think of the notes after the fermata at measure 22 as a classical era cadenza. Measures 20 to the fermata at 22 are the orchestra with their closing thoughts; the fermata at 22 to the C at 29 is the cadenza; the C at 29 is the orchestra gently coming back in. Thinking that way lent a real sense of cohesiveness and momentum to the second page of the movement.

My Skepticism About the Allemande!

For some reason I have always found this movement problematic. I don’t know why. It just seemed kind of…there? Kind of long-winded? I don’t know. We’d spent a while with the Prelude and were pondering going to something else entirely when I turned the page to the Allemande and made the fateful, offhand comment that I thought it was boring.

I was interrupted. “Um, no. Actually this is probably the strongest movement in the suite.”

“What?”

“Yeah. It’s so strong that sometimes at auditions they will ask for just this specific movement.”

“What?”

“Okay,” he said, stepping forward and smoothing down the page. “We really need to work on this.”

So I played through the first half of the Allemande. And even as I played it, after just having gotten done working on phrasing and such in the Prelude, I knew I’d been approaching it all wrong. There was so much subtlety there that I hadn’t been seeing or feeling before. Phrases echoing one another, long passages stretching for line after line, breaths in and breaths out. I hadn’t been hearing long-windedness; I’d been hearing long lines, and getting the two mixed up. As PVF admonished, “If you can’t find the phrase in Bach, it’s your fault.”

At measure 13, when the music switched to treble, I made a mistake I’d memorized. “This is interesting,” PVF said. “You’re reading this wrong. And you know what? This part is in your clef! You’re reading all this alto clef without a problem, and then you made the biggest mistake you’ve made yet while reading your own clef.”

Heh. Maybe I am a violist, after all.

PVF pointed out the dramatic leap of a seventh at measure 13. “Look at that seventh! How can you say that seventh is boring? How can you possibly say such a thing?”

Yeah. He does have a point.

General Musicianship!

We worked quite a bit on phrasing. The first four measures are a prime example of what can be done with a seemingly simple set of notes. The pattern starts out with a G that comes back over and over. Don’t emphasize that as much, because it doesn’t change for quite a few measures, and it can start to feel monotonous. Pay the most attention to the changing notes on top. Notice what chords they make. What narrative can that chord pattern be transferred into? Confidence, followed by a slightly less confident thought, followed by true doubt, followed by encouraging reassurance? Try playing the chords unbroken. Don’t they sound familiar? They should; they’re in the Sarabande. No note is an island. Everything is part of something else. The prelude may be an unrelenting series of sixteenth notes, and for the most part it is, but it also has a narrative arc. Don’t be so caught up in what finger goes where and what angle the elbows have to be at that you lose sight of what you’re saying. This is an easy trap to fall in. Communication sometimes takes a back seat to learning how to actually do the darn thing. But that is like spending hours and hours learning how to clean a stove, and then not actually baking anything. What’s the point (unless you get some weird twisted thrill from stove-cleaning?).

And so on and so forth.

….

Brain fry!

“It’s all there,” he said, to sum the afternoon up. “The technique is there. Trust it’s there. Now it needs humanity.”

Humanity: easier said than done.

As we were packing up, we somehow got onto the topic of what size instrument I was playing. “What size is that one again?” he said.

“A fourteen.” I took off the shoulder rest and slowly turned it around, looking at the front, the side, the back. “It’s nice for the size and for the price, but…” I thought back to all the work I’ve done with relaxation, all the hours I’ve spent in front of the mirror. All the dismayed expressions I’ve made when the rich gutsy viola sound I wanted just wasn’t there.

I looked up. “But I’m ready for the fifteen.”

PVF smiled. Muahaha, I’m sure he was thinking. Mua-ha-ha-ha-ha.

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